When my mother was a little girl in Northern Italy on a small family farm, she would watch baby chicks hatch out of their eggs. She was fascinated by the cracks and the the small puncture marks that would arrive signalling the arrival of a baby chick.
There were times she would feel sorry for the chicks. There were always the ones who would struggle deeply to get out of their shells. So she would help them out. She would help those baby chicks out by picking away at the shell.
I used to think about this story a lot when I was a teenager and a young adult. I guess I am still thinking about it now as a middle aged woman.
It seems that evolution and natural selection throw a series of fitness, strength and stress tests to all species to ensure survival of the fittest. These tests do not arrive when you are trained, practiced, rehearsed and ready – they happen at your edges. You have outgrown your container, your food source, your requirements for survival.
Passing these tests, being able to successfully pull yourself out of your egg, benefits you and it benefits your species. Picking at the shell of the egg, strengthens the chick, gives her practice at pecking which she will need as she learns to feed herself. If you can pull yourself out and survive, you pass on your genes to the next crew of chicks and you help ensure a stronger gene pool.
If you are unable, you are too weak, without assistance, you die. You do not pass on those genes. Your genes don’t make it into the next crew of chicks.
Helping a chick crack out of it’s shell takes away important practice and skills a chick needs to survive. It may alter natural selection. On the other hand, it might save it’s life.
The same dilemma plays itself out hundreds of times in our own lives. When do we step in and help our children, our friends, our co-workers or our families? When does helping turn into enabling turn into controlling or fearfulness?
Some struggle is necessary for anything to survive. It is billions of years of hardwiring that says, growth comes from struggle, conflict, and change. And so does death.
It is relatively easy for me to work with this razor edge relationship between suffering, life and death when I am working with a client. A client is already motivated enough to get help. I can listen to the story, work in small increments, see results, work in bigger increments, see results, setbacks, results, setbacks and then transformation. Often, exactly in that order.
It becomes more difficult to do when someone close to me is in the suffering. I have to fight the impulse to go over and “crack the shell” myself. I want to fix the problem, in part, because it is so painful for me, to be in the presence of someone I love, who is suffering.
A few years ago, I felt a significant and very loud urging to step forward and help someone close to me. “You need a hand. You are struggling. I can help you.” She said yes, and so for a part of her journey, together we cracked a few of the gritty pieces of the shell. I imagine, I hope, there is enough trust and love that the next time she feels stuck, she will once again be okay with a companion and a guide to move through an unbearable edge.
It is an art in knowing when your assistance is enabling weakness or encouraging strength. I see the danger of families protecting their loved ones from their suffering to such a degree as to teach them weakness. I see the danger of families unable to walk alongside their loved ones suffering, thus missing an opportunity to strengthen both their relationship and their courage. It is all a fine line.
I don’t have any answers, but I imagine, it is the work of our species to dance that razor’s edge in finding ways to strengthen and fortify the generations and generations and generations to come.